MIPC’s Summer Guide to Sun Safety: The Basics

by Kelly Thelin, MIPC PA-C

You may be surprised to know that skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, which is why year round skin health is extremely important. However, now that beach season is upon us, understanding how to protect your skin from the damaging effects of the sun is required summer reading.

There are several reasons why we should care about our skin. Cancer is the most concerning, but other issues like wrinkles, age spots, dehydration, and heat stroke are more often of more imminent concern. So how can we protect ourselves? First and foremost, do not use tanning beds. Time and again, studies have shown that UV exposure from tanning beds can be even more harmful than the rays from the sun, likely because of the prolonged time spent in the beds as well as the closer proximity of the rays. The safest way to achieve a healthy glow is to use a topical tanning lotion that temporarily pigments the skin.

When outdoors, barrier methods are the most effective – hats, clothing, and sunglasses. Sunscreen is another extremely effective way to guard our skin. There are two primary ways that sunscreen can prevent UV ray penetration: minerals and chemicals. Zinc oxide, the ingredient that makes many sunscreens white and pasty, is a mineral that forms a physical barrier on the skin. Oxybenzone and avobenzone and are two common ingredients that generate a chemical barrier- many sunscreens these days have both.

And now to answer a puzzler – what does SPF really mean? We know that higher is better and stronger, right? It stands for Sun Protection Factor, literally a factor of protection, and therefore means it would take 30x longer to redden your skin if using an SPF 30, than if using nothing at all. In addition, higher SPFs actually filter out marginally more UV rays. Daily use warrants SPF of at least 15 and is it doubtful that SPFs over 50 provide significantly more protection.  Do NOT use the SPF number to determine “how long its safe” to be in the sun.

Typically application is often far less than recommended and ideal re-application is every 2 hours, after getting wet, and after sweating. Family history, genetic factors, skin color also affects the quantity of UV rays absorbed. It is important to consider all of these other factors when deciding how much SPF you should use. Efficacy is best when an ounce, or a shot glass, is applied to the sun exposed areas of the skin. This is true on sunny days, overcast days, at the beach, or in the car, as those harmful rays can reach the skin even through clouds and glass.

All sunscreens should be re-applied after water or sweat exposure. Instead, they can be “water resistant” and the labels will tell you how long it is resistant before you need to re-apply.

Now that you are armed with up to date information, go forth and slather on the sunscreen and enjoy those rays!